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A post on ambition at another blog (in 2010) , which included a range of quotations on the subject, inspired me to think that I might be able to write an interesting essay on the topic of ambition in Goethe’s Faust. This post is a stab at such an essay.
The word “Faustian” is frequently used in books, articles, blog posts, etc on all sorts of topics. I think the image that most people have of Faust is of a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for dangerous knowledge: sort of a mad-scientist type. This may be true of earlier versions of the Faust legend, but I think it’s a misreading (or more likely a non-reading) of Goethe’s definitive version.
Faust, at the time when the devil first appears to him, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of knowledge–in many different scholarly disciplines–and is totally frustrated and in despair about the whole thing. It is precisely the desire to do something other than to pursue abstract knowledge that leads him to engage in his fateful bargain with Mephistopheles.
If it’s not the pursuit of abstract knowledge, then what ambition drives Faust to sell his soul? C S Lewis suggests that his motivations are entirely practical: he wants “gold and guns and girls.” This is partly true, but is by no means the whole story.
Certainly, Faust does like girls. Very early in the play, he encounters a young woman who strikes his fancy:
FAUST: My fair young lady, may I make free
To offer you my arm and company?
GRETCHEN: I’m neither fair nor lady, pray
Can unescorted find my way
FAUST: God, what a lovely child! I swear
I’ve never seen the like of her
She is so dutiful and pure
Yet not without a pert allure
Her rosy lip, her cheek aglow
I never shall forget, I know
Her glance’s timid downward dart
Is graven deeply in my heart!
But how she was so short with me–
That was consummate ecstasy!
Immediately following this meeting, Faust demands Mephisto’s magical assistance in the seduction of Gretchen. It’s noteworthy that he insists on this help despite the facts that (a)he brags to the devil that he is perfectly capable of seducing a girl like Gretchen on his own, without any diabolical assistance, and (b)a big part of Gretchen’s appeal is clearly that she seems so difficult to win–a difficulty that will be short-circuited by Mephisto’s help.
Mephisto, of course, complies with Faust’s demand…this devil honors his contracts…and Faust’s seduction of Gretchen leads directly to the deaths of her mother, her child by Faust, her brother, and to Gretchen’s own execution.
Diabolical magic also allows Faust to meet Helen of Troy (time and space are quite fluid in this play) whom he marries and impregnates, resulting in the birth of their child Euphorion.
So, per Lewis, yes, Faust is definitely motivated by the pursuit of women. But this is only a small part of the complex structure of ambition that Goethe has given his protagonist.
(Yes, I am working very hard on finishing up the third Luna City Chronicle – comedy, drama, diversion, small-town hi-jinks, and all … oh, and as an extra? Behold the logo for the Mighty Fighting Moths of Luna City, courtesy of my brother Alex, the graphics artist!)
It was part of Richard’s gradual acceptance into the community of Luna City – as a pillar of the same in his office as manager/cook of the Luna Café and Coffee – that he take a turn in the old home economics classroom of Luna City’s secondary school teaching a necessary adult survival skill to twenty or so sixteen and seventeen year old students. The high school was named for Hernando “Nando” Gonzales, the legendary jet fighter ace of the Korean War and native son of Luna City; the adult survival skills course had been the mind-blowing stroke of genius on the part of Nando’s second cousin once removed, Geronimo “Jerry” Gonzales while serving as Luna City Superintendent of Schools. A series of adult experts offered an educational smorgasbord; household budgeting and basic income-tax return preparation, simple auto and household trouble-shooting, repairs and maintenance, First Aid … and Richard had been tapped for a week of cooking classes. The class met in a room which had been set up to facilitate cooking lessons, back in the decades when that meant cooking and sewing instruction for girls; five fully-equipped kitchenettes and a central instruction area with an overhead mirror over the prep-area and cooktop. Richard felt oddly at home on the very first day, although it was jarring to be addressed as ‘sir’ or Mr. Astor-Hall. And he felt terribly old, when he made a reference to Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, on the very first day, and had to explain it to a roomful of baffled teenagers. Read the rest of this entry »
(In the light of the mostly depressing news this week and today – I present a short chapter from the next Luna City Chronicle – which we aim to have completed for release in November, 2016)
Dance with the Bunny Boiler in the Pale Moonlight
Some weeks after Romeo Gonzales arrived and set up his own campsite in the near-deserted Age of Aquarius, Richard pedaled up the road – deftly avoiding the ruts, bumps and puddles that nature and the passage of the occasional heavy vehicle had scoured into the clay-like soil with the skill of experience. It had rained lightly the night before, so puddles there were in plenty, and the fresh new grass had begun just raising tender new blades coyly between the old dead hay of the previous season.
On the whole, he had found Romeo Gonzales to be a congenial neighbor, given that it was hard to be anything else at half an acre space between their trailers and workplaces some blocks distant from each other. At least, Romeo showed no inclination to conspire together with malignantly-inclined micro-media operatives to ambush him at the door with lights, cameras and harassing commentary, unlike the egregious Penn. Who, in concordance with the injunction delivered through Jess, showed every inclination of making himself scarce whenever Richard was around. Richard was profoundly glad of that, not least because he treasured his afternoons of solitary contemplation of the pleasant but uninspiring landscape and his studies in Larousse. Read the rest of this entry »
The Chronicles of Luna City proved to be so popular and my daughter and I had so many ideas for further plot developments, that it was only a small chore to produce a sequel, involving the search for a trove of gold coins and ingots supposedly hidden somewhere on Mills Farm by the reprobate bootlegger Old Charley Mills a hundred years ago, and a movie being shot on location around Luna City, which might very well be not all that it seemed when the project was pitched to the residents of Luna City. The Second Chronicle of Luna City is now up on Amazon and Barnes and Noble in Kindle and Nook ebook versions, and will be available by next week in print. (It’s also available direct from us, through the Luna City website.
I have written previously about the melt-down of the last Hugo Awards (here and here) so I don’t think I need recapitulate the whole multi-year saga. If you are seriously into science fiction, you already know, if you aren’t, it’ll merely be of minor academic interest. I keep coming back to as a writer with a mild interest in science fiction generally, and a slightly more intense one in how a particular progressive and insular mind-set manages to warp the heck out of book publishing and marketing the same to the masses, and because I have on-line acquaintances who are passionately interested in the matter. These interests tend to be infectious, I’ll have you know.
It had begun to seem in the last few years – especially to science fiction fans – that what was being published, marketed, and lauded by the critical luminaries in science fiction circles was actually not terribly readable. It was increasing precious, depressing, literary in the worst interpretation of the word (pretentious, pointless and prizing showy effects in the use of language over plot, characterization and possibility) and that the gender, skin color and sexual/political orientation of the author mattered more than being able to write a cracking good yarn. Too many books were, in Sarah Hoyt’s phrase, grey goo – the written-word equivalent of Filboid Studge. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Charles Cameron on 18th March 2016 (All posts by Charles Cameron)
[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — on creativity at the intersection of the fleeting and the eternal ]
Centaur, displayed in the International Wildlife Museum, Tucson, AZ
You know Lao Tzu’s “uncarved wood” (pu) — and Spencer Brown’s “Mark” or “first distinction? It is hard to speak of “the one and the many” without language itself favoring the many, the one being “one” and the many “another”. The Greek phrase “Before Abraham was, I am” attributed to Christ may be as close as we get.
The “uncarved wood” is not some definite -– named and thus defined -– “one” -– it is also “raw silk” (su), the simple -– the natural way or stream, from which things have not yet been separated out by naming.
There is delight, however, both in one becoming two and thus many, in the making of distinctions and naming of names, and no less in two (or the many) becoming one, in the resolution of paradox, the release of tension, peace after strife. In human terms, there is joy in both solo and collaborative achievement.
What better, then, than the perfect fit between disparate entities?
I have written often enough about Arthur Koestler and the place where two disparate spheres of thought link up — the centaur links horse and man in an indissoluble unity — there’s no question here of dismounting after a ride, giving the horse a rub down and some feed, then retiring to the verandah for a whiskey…
The mythological aha! we get from the centaur displayed in the museum hinges on the fit of horse and human skeletons, the perfection with which disparates are joined.
Thus far, whenever I’ve discussed Koestler‘s notion of bisociation, I’ve focused on the sense that it liea at the heart of creativity. Koestler himself takes it deeper. Here’s Nicholas Vajifdar, in a review titled Summing Up Arthur Koestler’s Janus: A Summing Up:
Koestler .. asserts that there are two planes of existence, the trivial and the tragic. The trivial plane is the stage for paying bills, shopping, working. Most of life takes place on the trivial plane. But sometimes we’re swept up into the tragic plane, usually due to some catastrophe, and everything becomes glazed with an awful significance. From the point of view of the tragic plane, the trivial plane is empty and frivolous; from the point of view of the trivial plane, the tragic plane is embarrassing and overwrought. Once we’ve moved from one plane to the other, we forget why we could have felt the way we used to.
That’s not just any old distinction between two realms, that’s the one Koestler himself prioritizes. And following his basic principle that a creative spark is lit when two disparate “planes of ideas” intersect, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find Vajifdar continuing:
“The highest form of human creativity,” Koestler writes, “is the endeavor to bridge the gap between the two planes. Both the artist and the scientist are gifted — or cursed — with the faculty of perceiving the trivial events of everyday experience sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of eternity…”
Finally, Vajifdar tells us why he finds Koestler’s definition of art maybe the best he’s ever read:
What I value in this definition of creativity is its emphasis on the subjective being of those who experience the work of art or scientific theory, a surer gauge than cataloguing formal properties or whether it's "interesting." Art has always seemed like a kind of sober drunkenness, or drunken sobriety. Most people probably have wondered whether the feelings they felt while drunk were more or less real than their sober feelings. Koestlerian art joins these seemingly irreconcilable feelings together.
This intense and perverse peace, superimposed on scenes of flesh-tearing and eardrum-splitting violence, is an archetype of war-experience. Grass never smells sweeter than in a dug-out during a bombardment when one’s face is buried in the earth. What soldier has not seen that caterpillar crawling along a crack in the bark of the tree behind which he took cover, and pursuing its climb undisturbed by the spattering of his tommy-gun? This intersecting of the tragic and the trivial planes of existence has always obsessed me in the Spanish Civil War, during the collapse of France, in the London blitz.
(Because of the enthusiastic response to The Chronicles of Luna City, and because several of those who reviewed it were wondering mightily about the cliffhanger at the end, my daughter and I have decided to push full ahead on the next installation of the story, and release it in May. One of the ongoing threads in the new tale regards a movie production coming to town, to do local shooting – at first with the enthusiastic cooperation of the residents. But then, certain things come to light about the production itself …)
Three days later, two men sat on the terrace of the Wyler home place, watching the sun slide down in the western sky, and the shadows lengthen across the formal garden below, and the green pastures beyond, where cows drifted idly hither and yon. A comfortably shabby set of rustic bentwood furniture contrasted rather oddly with the pillared splendors of the mansion built by Captain Herbert Wyler, in the first flush of his prosperity in the 1880s cattle markets. But they sat at the exact best place to watch the sun go down on the Wyler Exotic Game Ranch, and on the distant trees and church spires of Luna City, and so it was one of Doc Wyler’s favorite places, even in the heat of a Texas mid-summer. The temporary headquarters for filming extensive location shots was also within view, a prospect in the farthest meadow, and now regarded by both men with extreme distaste.
“Good of you to drop everything, and hustle all the way from Houston,” Doc Wyler said at last. The pages of the script lay on the table between them.
“You said it was an emergency in the note,” Clovis Walcott replied, as grim as s stone face on Mount Rushmore. “By god, so it is. I’d like to smash that miss-representing little weasel into a bloody pulp with my bare hands. We got taken, Doc. And taken bad.”
“That we did, Colonel – that we did. They told us what we wanted to hear, like any good convincing conman does.” Doc Wyler sounded much the calmer of the two, although the half-consumed mint julep at his side may have had something to do with his air of relative equanimity. “The thing is now … what are we gonna do about it?”
“My lawyer’s going to hear from me – first thing in the morning, if not by voicemail tonight,” Clovis sounded as if he were grinding his teeth. “And my banker, as well. I invested in this travesty – and I was near as dammit about to make it a bigger investment, on account of what those bastards said. I wouldn’t have touched this travesty with a ten-foot-pole, no matter how sweet they talked. As it stands in this script, this movie will be a disaster, all the way around. I wonder if my lawyer can make a case for fraud …”
“Ah, but there was nothing in writing about the plot itself, was there?” Doc Wyler sipped meditatively at his julep. “All a verbal understanding between honorable men doing business together on a handshake understanding … sharp practice, Colonel. It’ll be the death of this world. A man’s word used to be a bond. I’ve always said ‘trust but verify,’ but when it turns out that you can’t trust ‘em after all…”
“Thought that was Ronnie Reagan who said that,” Clovis Walcott sounded as if his own barely touched julep had just begun to mellow the edges of his fury.
“Yeah, he did – but he stole that line from me,” Doc Wyler replied. “As I was saying – if it turns out to be that you can’t verify, and don’t trust … and that you have been, in fact, lied to in the most infamous fashion – what do you do then?” Read the rest of this entry »
Taking pen in hand … or actually, the computer keyboard … to while away a few minutes of leisure between wrapping up today’s work. (Yes, I am a small business owner and independent author; weekends and holidays are normal working days for me, although those hours and days are of my own choice, which makes up for quite a lot. And also, the commute is short.)
I was working away on graphic adornments for the next book in the Luna City Chronicles, and an editing job which I had thought to finish by mid-month, but these things happen. Anyway, I was diverted upon coming out to start cooking supper, to note that Blondie is also working away on her own stuff for upcoming events; for aural wallpaper, she had an old TV show on streaming video as she works. She has been going through various old shows in recent weeks. Last week it was the original Thundercats, the week before that it was McGyver. But this week it’s The X-Files … a show which she finds nostalgically amusing, but which I began to find so repellant that I stopped watching after a certain point. Was it the episode with the murderously incestuous hillbilly clan with the armless, legless mother, or the one where an oh-so-secret US Army unit machine-gunned to death a whole group of human-alien hybrid offspring? Memory does not serve up an exact date at this point, but that was where I decided that The X-Files just was not my cuppa any longer. Not for dealing out spine-chilling bits of horror in weekly episodes – the creepy guy who could slither through AC ducts, the primitive humans living in the wilds of New Jersey, the life insurance salesman who could foresee the death of his potential clients … for sheer story-telling expertise and creepy thrills, right up there with The Twilight Zone, or Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Likely, The X-Files still is, among certain aficionados. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been reading The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. The author remarks that, in the 19th century, the reading material in many American homes included Milton’s Paradise Lost. We already knew that Shakespeare and the Bible were common reading in those days.
The author notes (and this is unarguable, I think) that a society is largely characterized by the stories and myths that it shares.
So my question for discussion is this…and I’m almost afraid to ask it…in American in 2016, what are our primary shared stories and myths?
Tillman on Lamya H: “Your complaint is that your psychology professor was too—fat? I am so sorry. I can see that that would ruin your freshman experience. You were expecting? Luke Skywalker during his youth? Princess Leia Organa during her Jabba the Hutt years?”
From: Seth Barrett Tillman, Return of the Letter to a Young Social Justice Warrior—responding to Lamya H.’s: A personal history of Islamophobia in America, Vox (January 15, 2016), http://ssrn.com/abstract=2719141.
It’s been said about Godzilla that it was Japan’s way of dealing with the B-29’s of the American Army Air Corp of WWII. A…monster…emerges from the ocean to the East, wreaking havoc and destruction on the cities and people of Japan. Nothing they could do seemed capable of stopping or even slowing the incredible assault. All was laid to waste before it. The movie was a means of dealing with the horrible memories of the bombings on another level, a symbolic level, easier to face that way. Dealing with it without dealing with it. A coping mechanism for the culture.
Cloverfield may be the American equivalent. An apocalyptic horror film, it incorporates themes from Godzilla, Alien and the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. It takes place in Manhattan and the movie begins in retrospect as video footage from a recovered camera, now in the archives of the DoD. The everyday friendships, lives and loves of a few young professionals unfolds into a nightmare of fear and panic as an enormous creature inflicts death and destruction on the city and everyone around them. Virtually the entire film is done in hand-held camera style as they sporadically document the chaos unfolding around them. It’s an incredibly effective technique and gives a feeling of reality to the film it otherwise wouldn’t have. There’s no doubt in my mind this is the filmmaker’s way of coping with 9/11.
Here’s the first clip in a series of nine you can watch at Movieclips. The friends have just left a going away party and evacuated to the roof after what felt like an earthquake and power outage.
The first story is Robert Heinlein’s The Year of the Jackpot. A consulting statistician with the unlikely name of Potiphar Breen observes that many strange social trends are on a strong upswing. One such trend: young women removing all their clothes in public. Potiphar sees one such disrobing in process, shoos away the police, covers the girl with his raincoat, then takes her home and asks her why she did it. She doesn’t know.
Potiphar informs her that nine other girls have done the same thing, in Los Angeles alone, on that very day…and goes on to tell her that this is a small part of the overall pattern of increasing craziness that he is observing. A man has sued an entire state legislature for alienation of his wife’s affections–and the judge is letting the suit be tried. In another state, a bill has been introduced to repeal the laws of atomic energy–not the relevant statutes, but the natural laws concerning nuclear physics. Potiphar shows the girl (her name is Meade) the graphs on which he has plotted the outbreak of bizarre things over time, and notes that many different indicators, all with different cycles, are all converging in this very year. Still, Meade wants to look at her disrobing episode on an individual basis: “I want to know why I did what I did!”
“I think we’re lemmings, Meade,” Potiphar says. “Ask a lemming why he does it. If you could get him to slow up his rush to death, even money says he would rationalize his answer as well as any college graduate. But he does it because he has to–and so do we.” When Meade tries to defend free will–“I know I have it–I can feel it”, Potiphar continues with another analogy: “I imagine every little neutron in an atom bomb feels the same way. He can go spung! or he can sit still, just as he pleases. But statistical mechanics works out anyhow. And the bomb goes off.”
As Meade and Potiphar become romantically involved, Potiphar’s indices of bizarre behavior and events continue to climb. Transvestism by draft-dodgers has resulted in a mass arrest in Chicago and a gigantic mass trial–but the (male) prosecutor shows up in a pinafore. At the All Souls Community Church of Springfield, the pastor has reinstituted ceremonial nudity. Two weeks later, a hundred and nine other churches have announced the same policy. California is suffering a major water crisis, but people continue watering their lawns as usual. Hardly anyone is interested in the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions; all the excitement is about the revived Know-Nothing party.
Foreign affairs, too, are disintegrating into chaos…topped off by a nuclear exchange. Meade and Potiphar manage to survive, and Potiphar’s cycle charts seem to indicate that things will soon get better…(read the story to see how it comes out.)
The fictional events of Heinlein’s Year of the Jackpot (set in 1952–it was written in 1947) don’t seem any more bizarre than the kind of headline stories that we are seeing every day in real-life:
This year is the 50th anniversary of the theatrical release of The Sound of Music. This was one of last things to come out of the Old Hollywood studio system which was broken apart first by anti-trust laws and later by the advent of TV. The tattered remains of Hollywood were then occupied by the communists and nihilists of the late 1960’s who proceeded to destroy whatever artistic foundations remained. Hollywood is completely incapable of producing a movie of this artistic quality and beauty today. Everyone, I think, feels the loss.
The Sound of Music became the highest grossing film of its time, bringing in $286,214,076 worldwide ($2.366 billion in 2014 dollars), finally displacing Gone With the Wind. The film was adapted from a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical that opened in 1959 and starred Mary Martin. I’ve listened to the recordings of Mary, and I have to say Julie Andrews is much, much better. That’s probably because it was near the end of Mary’s career, which began in 1939, and Julie Andrews, age 30, was at the peak of her ability. She did a spectacular job in this film and I still get it out once in awhile to revel in its music and beauty.
It was directed by Robert Wise: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Sand Pebbles (1966) The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). A young Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane.
The critical reception, from Wikipedia…I had to laugh at the NYT getting it completely wrong, even back then:
The film had its opening premiere on March 2, 1965 at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. Initial reviews were mixed. Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times, criticized the film’s “romantic nonsense and sentiment”, the children’s “artificial roles”, and Robert Wise’s “cosy-cum-corny” direction. Judith Crist, in a biting review in the New York Herald Tribune, dismissed the movie as “icky sticky” and designed for “the five to seven set and their mommies”. Wise later recalled, “The East Coast intellectual papers and magazines destroyed us, but the local papers and the trades gave us great reviews. “Indeed, reviewers such as Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times described the film as “three hours of visual and vocal brilliance”, and Daily Variety called it “a warmly-pulsating, captivating drama set to the most imaginative use of the lilting R-H tunes, magnificently mounted and with a brilliant cast”.
The movie is a celebration of love, of family, of the beauty of the world on a summer day, and the importance of family and friendship in the worst of times. That “The East Coast intellectuals” would completely miss that, well, it doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Haldane was an eminent British scientist (population genetics) and a Marxist. C S Lewis was…well, you probably already know who C S Lewis was.
Haldane’s critique was directed at the series of novels by Lewis known as the Ransom Trilogy, and particularly the last book of the series, That Hideous Strength . Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years. All this may sound ancient and esoteric, but I believe the Lewis/Haldane controversy is very relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape.
To briefly summarize That Hideous Strength: Mark, a young sociologist, is hired by a government agency called NICE–the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation–having as its stated mission the application of science to social problems. (Unbelievably, today the real-life British agency which establishes rationing policies for healthcare is also called NICE.) In the novel, NICE turns out to be a conspiracy devoted to very diabolical purposes, as Mark gradually discovers. It also turns out that the main reason NICE wanted to hire Mark is to get control of his wife, Jane (maiden name: Tudor) who has clairvoyant powers. The NICE officials want to use Jane’s abilities to get in touch with the magician Merlin and to effect a junction between modern scientific power and the ancient powers of magic, thereby bringing about the enslavement of mankind and worse. Jane, though, becomes involved with a group which represents the polar opposite of NICE, led by a philology professor named Ransom, who is clearly intended as a Christ-figure. The conflict between NICE and the Ransom group will determine the future of humanity.
A brilliantly written and thought-provoking book, which I highly recommend, even if, like me, you’re not generally a fan of fantasy novels.
With context established, here are some of the highlights of the Lewis/Haldane controversy:
1) Money and Power.
In his article, Haldane attacks Lewis for the latter’s refusal to absolutely condemn usury, and celebrates the fact that “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface”…clearly referring to the Soviet Union. Here’s part of Lewis’s response:
The difference between us is that the Professor sees the ‘World’ purely in terms of those threats and those allurements which depend onmoney. I do not. The most ‘worldly’ society I have ever lived in isthat of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance ofthe strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, andthe unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that mostmembers of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, towin the favour of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice toobad for the aristocracy to practise. But the class system did not inthe least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who needs tocare about money if most of the things he wants will be offered bycringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force? Thislesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasonswhy I cannot share Professor Haldanes exaltation at the banishmentof Mammon from ‘a sixth of our planet’s surface’. I havealready lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: itwas the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. IfMammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. Butwhere Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his place? As Aristotle said, ‘Men do not become tyrants in order tokeep warm’. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But allmen also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being ‘inthe know’ or the ‘inner ring’, of not being ‘outsiders’: a passioninsufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story. When thestate of society is such that money is the passport to all theseprizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. Butwhen the passport changes, the desires will remain.
Posted by Helen on 31st October 2015 (All posts by Helen)
I say quite unashamedly that I am a detective story fan and something of a geek as well. I like British and American detective stories of every age (well, obviously not all) and get extremely angry when I see ridiculous comments made by people who have clearly not read much in the genre. No, not all British novels are cosy and not all American ones are tough; and no, Christie did not write silly mystery stories about country houses, which figure very rarely in her works; and yes, there were a good many excellent male detective story writers in the Golden Age on both sides of the Atlantic as well as a number of women thriller writers.
Luckily for me, there are other fans and geeks on Facebook and we have great discussions. Good thing like blogs, collections of essays and conferences grow out of those discussions or around them. Recently it was suggested by Curtis J. Evans that we should have a Tuesday Night Club to imitate the first Miss Marple stories. Several of us posted five Tuesday Night (or, in my case, sometimes Wednesday morning or afternoon) blogs about Christie. The link to Curt’s blog will lead you to all the other bloggers who took part in this enterprise but I thought that just for fun I shall post the links to my blogs here.And you must admit that is a very different them from my usual ones as well as a much happier one.
My first posting, on September 29, was about Miss Marple’s somewhat mysterious nephew, Raymond West and I think I really succeeded in unravelling certain puzzling aspects of his life and relationship with his aunt.
Then, on October 6, I wrote about Christie’s excellent understanding of social changes in Britain during and after the Second World War as well as her attitude to servants, very different from the way it is characterized by people who have heard of her novels but not read all that many of them.
Then I took one Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who appear in four novels and a collection of short stories. In my opinion, two of the novels are quite good, one passable and the last one is a complete mess. The collection of short stories, Partners in Crime, remains one of my favourites for reasons of entertainment rather than superior detection. On October 14 I wrote about the Beresfords in general and on October 21 I dealt with the Beresfords’ reading matter, which reflected Christie’s own to some extent and revealed some interesting facts.
My last posting as part of the Tuesday Night Club on October 27 was about archaeologists in Christie’s work. She knew a great deal about them, having married one and having accompanied him to a number of digs in Iraq and Syria where she took part in the work of uncovering the past. I have to admit to an egregious error: I omitted Signor Richetti (Death on the Nile) from my list of fake archaeologists.
It has been suggested that the Tuesday Night Club carries on with blogs about Ellery Queen, a seminal figure in crime writing, particularly in the US. I have read a number of the novels and short stories but have never been able to work out much enthusiasm for them, considering the atmosphere too hysterical, the character of Ellery too annoying and that of his father Richard, a New York police inspector, too stupid. I may sit the whole month out. Certainly, I have no time to do a posting this coming Tuesday but when I have read what my colleagues have written I may well think of something to say. In the meantime, have fun with Agatha Christie whose 125th birthday we are celebrating this year.
The current orthodoxy on Columbus is that he, and his impact, were unmitigated evil. This is, to say the least, an over-correction from earlier mythologizing.
Columbus certainly treated the people of Hispaniola who fell under his authority abusivley and cruelly. In that regard, he was typical of his day and age.
What was atypical about Columbus was his ingenious insight about the Atlantic wind patterns, and his superhuman drive to cross the Ocean Sea and arrive, as he incorrectly believed, in the Far East. It is of course false that people in his day did not know that the planet was spherical. Columbus did not have to prove that. Columbus was mistaken about the size of the sphere, and he imagined China to be a lot close than it was.
So, leafing – metaphorically speaking – through the video delights on offer through the Acorn video catalogue in search of something amusing to while away the evening after a day’s labor on various book projects, the most pressing of which is not my own, but a paid client – we came upon a two-part version from about ten years ago of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy. I suggested that we watch it, since I had a bout of Waugh fever about the time that I was in college upper division, in hot pursuit of that relatively useless degree in English. (But I enjoyed the pursuit very much on its own merits, not being one of those one-percenters with delusions of the diploma leading me author-matically into an lavishly paid gig anywhere in the academic or in the publishing establishment.)
Anyway, I had read a good few of Waugh’s books early on; liked Scoop – as vicious an evisceration of Big Media as it was in the 1930s as was ever set to page – and the first book of the Sword of Honor Trilogy, as a similarly bitterly cynical romp through the first years of WWII. The training year, the ‘Phony War’ year … when nothing much (aside from Nazi Germany overrunning Poland, the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark, and France) was happening. And then it all turned deadly serious, with which Waugh just didn’t seem able to cope. The seriousness of it all, I mean. Literary and serious observers, looking through their lorgnettes at current events sometimes have this difficulty, I know. Poor P. G. Woodhouse also had the same trouble, regarding WWII, even as it caught him up in its ghastly coils. I surmise that dear old P. G. dealt with it by moving to America and never dealing with it at all, within the frame of his books; probably a wise literary decision, since he had the formula down pat, so to speak. Read the rest of this entry »
Iwas delighted to receive Marjorie Garber‘s Shakespeare After Allin the mail this morning. Garber’s book is a thousand page review of everything Shakespeare ever wrote, with each play claiming its own chapter length analysis. The introduction of Shakespeare After All is a fascinating tour of Shakespeare’s reputation though the centuries, describing how Shakespeare’s poetry has been perceived in the days since his plays were originally performed, which of his works were most popular during various eras, and how their presentation on the page and performance on the stage has change with time. In Shakespeare’s lifetime Pericleswas the most popular of his works; in the 19th century, lines from King Johnand Henry VIII, much neglected today,were the most likely to appear in the quote books and progymnasmata collections so popular then. Emerson bitterly lamented that Harvard, his alma mater, had no lecturer in Shakespearean rhetoric. His lament went unheeded; neither Harvard nor Yale included Shakespeare among their course readings until the 1870s. Yet for 19th century men like Emerson this really was no great loss. The American people of this era were so engrossed with Shakespeare that no one living in America could escape him: evidence of his place in America’s “pop culture in the nineteenth century [can be found in everything from] traveling troupes, Shakespeare speeches as part of vaudeville bills, huge crowds and riots at productions, [to accounts of] audiences shouting lines back at the actors.“ I am reminded of Tocqueville‘s observation that every settler’s hut in America, no matter how squalid or remote, had a copy of a newspaper, a Bible, and some work of Shakespeare inside it.  Tocqueville used this as evidence to buttress his claim that the Americans were more educated and cultivated than any other people on the Earth. He may have been on to something. One cannot read the diaries, letters, and editorials of 19th century America without wondering at their eloquence and erudition. What caused this, if not the many hours they spent as children on their mother’s knee learning to read from the Jacobean English of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare?
Garber also discusses the role Shakespearean rhetoric has played in American political culture since the founding. Quotes from Shakespeare have always been ubiquitous in American politics. They were used in the earliest days of the American republic. They are used with equal frequency today. However, the manner in whichthey are used has shifted with time. This diversity may seem a small thing, but the different ways Shakespeare’s rhymes have been used through time reveal a great deal about broader and more important shifts in American political culture. This will become apparent as I describe these changes. A good place to start is with the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830. Of all American oratory, only the Lincoln-Douglass debates can claim greater fame than the debate Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne held on the antebellum Senate floor. At that time there was a resolution before the Senate calling for all new federal land surveys to be postponed until all of the existing land already surveyed had been sold. This struck the ire of the westerners, who pushed for federal land to be given to new settlers without charge or delay. In those days American politics was a sectional affair. Political outcomes often turned on forging an alliance between one region of the country and another to push through policies that might benefit both at the cost of the rest. Hayne, a South Carolina man, saw in this debate a chance to place a wedge between New England, whose delegates opposed free homesteading, and the frontier states of the West. A “coalition” (as he would call it) between Westerners and New Englanders had delivered the presidency to John Quincy Adams just a few years before. That coalition was formed in unusual circumstances, and thus was condemned in Southern circles as a “corrupt bargain” that threatened American liberties. Adam’s side denied these charges with greatest vigor, but all of the vigor in the world could not slow the democratic tide sweeping over American society. Andrew Jackson would ride this tide into the white house. Jackson, champion of mass democracy, reconfigured the landscape of American politics. His new coalition–which united men of the West, South, and the urban centers of the North–would dominate American politics for the next two decades. But Hayne and Webster had their debate only two years into this new era. It wasn’t clear that the revolution had been won; no one knew if Jackson’s coalition would prove transient or permanent. Any chance to drive New England further into the backwaters of national politics must be seized, and Hayne was eager to do the seizing.
Posted by Lexington Green on 25th September 2015 (All posts by Lexington Green)
I have in recent years been reading the work of Joseph Conrad. I spent many years believing the best writers in English were George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, with Leo Tolstoy in translation as a titan and peer. Then all of a sudden, in the last five or years I discovered that Ernest Hemingway is a near peer, and that V.S. Naipaul is every bit the equal of these great ones. And through Naipaul, I met Conrad, who also merits admission to this august company.
Naipaul and Conrad both have as a main theme the encounter, the clash, between European civilization and the peoples and ways of Asia and Africa. Conrad depicts the European imperial and commercial expansion near its peak, and while it is still confident and expanding. Naipaul depicts the world after the European domination has receded, like an outgoing tsunami, which has left a transformed landscape behind.
(Explanation here.) We spent Thursday afternoon and all of Friday in the town of Giddings, Texas, for the 10th Annual Word Wrangler Festival. The organizers gathered together more than thirty writers, for a community bash at the library/community center, followed by bringing in busloads of school children to the library to meet the lot of us, talk about our books, and to encourage them to explore books … it was a lovely way to spend the day. And we were faintly boggled on the drive up to discover that yes, there is actually some deep pinewood forest in this part of Texas. (The woods on the opposite side of the highway were relatively un-scorched by the fire.
And we brought home take-out BBQ brisket, pork and chicken from the Giddings City Meat Market, which is supposed to be one of the top best BBQ places in the state,
Posted by Ginny on 12th September 2015 (All posts by Ginny)
A friend takes joy in the heroic – finding it near home (her father-in-law’s willingness to volunteer his medical service to cities beset by polio in the fifties and in a Viet Nam hospital twenty years later) and farther. She cheers me. Her take is stoic, but toughness nurtures unsentimental appreciation – foregrounding the half-full glass amidst chaos. For instance, last week she described admiration for the curator and archivist Khaled al-Asaad http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/18/isis-beheads-archaeologist-syria, who, at 82, withstood a month’s interrogation by ISIS, ending in his beheading.
The 2015 Hugo awards were given out over last weekend, at Worldcon in Spokane, and the meltdown is ongoing. The commentary on this at the follow-up post at According to Hoyt has gone over 1,000 comments, a record that I haven’t seen on a blog since the heyday of a certain blog that is not mentioned any more (but whose name referenced small verdantly-colored prolate spheroids). I’ll admit, right from the get-go, that as a writer and blogger I have no real dog in this fight over the Hugo awards – not even the smallest of timid and depressed of puppies, but I did feel enough of an interest in it to post about it a couple of times. I merely observe with sympathy as an interested internet ‘friend’ and fan of some of those who are deeply involved, rather than a directly-involved author. I love Connie Willis’s books and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, used to love Marion Zimmer Bradley – alas, my collection of her books is now boxed and moldering away in the garage . My science fiction and ‘con’ activity extends only as far as having an entire run of Blakes’ 7 taped on VHS from when it was broadcast on KUED in Salt Lake City in the 1990s, having gone to the Salt Lake City ‘con several times, and once to the Albuquerque ‘con’ when it happened to be on a weekend at the time I was TDY to Kirtland AFB for a senior NCO leadership class. I had a marvelous time, on all those occasions … but my personal writing concentration is on historical fiction, and to a lesser extent, socio/political blogging.
This is a delightful interview of Krauthammer by William Kristol from earlier this year. It’s quite long but the whole thing is worth watching.
In this conversation, Charles Krauthammer reflects on his upbringing in a politically-tumultuous Quebec, his work in medicine, and his views on Zionism, Judaism, and religion. Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol also discuss some of the key ideas, questions, and themes of his writing—including the “Reagan Doctrine,” an idea he coined, the role of America in a new post-Cold War world, and whether the America of 2015 is in decline.
(A timeline of the interview appears on the interview’s YouTube page.)
To sum up, if you decide to publish an article, and your article gives rise to a response or responses taking issue with your ideas, that is cause for genuine pride and congratulations, as most ideas are never even noticed. But, if instead, your reaction to such responses is to claim that you have been injured (i.e., your feelings are hurt because you have become aware that others see the world differently from you), then it seems to me that your purported injury is not meaningful or cognizable. If mere hurt feelings were a recognized injury, then no one could possibly disagree with anyone else, and all intellectual inquiry, in law and in other fields, would be at an end. You do see that, right? At a time when free speech is in decline all over the world, when free speech is threatened by government monitoring, by ever expanding legal liability, and by criminals who respond with violence to speech with which they disagree, are you sure you are on the right side of this issue? Exactly whose side are you on?
When Goethe was 15, he was already recognized by friends as an exceptional writer. One of these friends, “Pylades,” told Goethe that he had recently read some of his verses aloud to “some pleasant companions…and not one of them will believe that you have made them.” Goethe said he didn’t much care whether they believed it or not, but just then one of the “pleasant companions” showed up, and Pylades proposed a way of convincing the fellow of Goethe’s abilities: “Give him any theme, and he will make you a poem on the spot.”
The disbeliever asked Goethe if he “would venture to compose a pretty love-letter in rhyme, which a modest young woman might be supposed to write to a young man, to declare her inclination.”
“Nothing easier,” said Goethe, and after thinking for a few minutes commenced to write. The now-former disbeliever was very impressed, said he hoped to see more of Goethe soon, and proposed an expedition into the country. For this expedition, they were joined by several more young men “of the same rank”…intelligent and knowledgeable, but from the lower and middle classes, earning their livings by copying for lawyers, tutoring children, etc.
These guys told Goethe that they had copied his letter in a mock-feminine hand and had sent it to “a conceited young man, who was now firmly persuaded that a lady to whom he had paid distant court was excessively enamored of him, and sought an opportunity for closer acquaintance.” The young man had completely fallen for it, and desired to respond to the woman also in verse…but did not believe he had the talent to write such verse.
Believing it was all in good fun, Goethe agreed to also write the reply. Soon, he met the would-be lover, who was “certainly not very bright” and who was thrilled with “his” response to his inamorata.
While Goethe was with this group, “a girl of uncommon…of incredible beauty” came into the room. Her name was Gretchen, and she was a relative of one of the tricksters present. Goethe was quite smitten:
“The form of that girl followed me from that moment on every path; it was the first durable impression which a female being had made upon me: and as I could find no pretext to see her at home, and would not seek one, I went to church for love of her, and had soon traced out where she sat. Thus, during the long Protestant service, I gazed my fill at her.”
The tricksters soon prevailed upon Goethe to write another letter, this one from the lady to the sucker “I immediately set to work, and thought of every thing that would be in the highest degree pleasing if Gretchen were writing it to me.” When finished, he read it to one of the tricksters, with Gretchen sitting by the window and spinning. After the trickster left, Gretchen told Goethe that he should not be participating in this affair: “The thing seems an innocent jest: it is a jest, but it is not innocent”…and asked why “you, a young man man of good family, rich, independent” would allow himself to be used as a tool in this deception, when she herself, although a dependent relative, had refused to become involved by copying the letters.
Gretchen then read the epistle, commenting that “That is very pretty, but it is a pity that it is not destined for a real purpose.” Goethe said how exciting it would be for a young man to really receive such a letter from a girl he cared about, and…greatly daring…asked: “if any one who knew, prized, honored, and adored you, laid such a paper before you, what would you do”…and pushed the paper, which she had previously pushed back toward him, nearer to Gretchen.
“She smiled, reflected for a moment, took the pen, and subscribed her name.”